Treya Lam and the Shape of a Person

‘She draws you in, hypnotizes you, and all at once you’ll get taken up by a huge tide, a swell that takes you over completely.‘


On a sunny day this May I spoke with the musician Treya Lam about the metaphor of choice of instrument, one of the first choices any American child makes, at least a child born to relative security in this country. Lam, a multi-instrumentalist with an album released earlier this month, has many talents: at the piano, the viola, the violin. Her voice is what people comment on, though, as I found the more folks I spoke to who’d heard her perform. “When she opened her mouth it’s kind of like the entire restaurant stopped eating,” the comic Trish Nelson told me, remembering the first time she saw Lam, at that time a no-name gigger at Mother’s Ruin, the Nolita bar where Nelson waited tables. “It’s so typical of New York that you have a future Grammy Award–winning singer working a 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. song shift.”

The more I learned about Lam, the more her favorite instrument made sense. “The viola,” she explained in her low and musical voice, “is kind of like the middle child between the cello and the violin. It’s a little bit deeper. I personally think now that of all the string instruments…it’s just the best.” She likes how the viola offers the soulfulness of the cello without all the fuss, “a cello you can carry,” able “to create this richness” without impracticality. Imagine, she posed, referencing the larger string instrument, “having to take that on the subway.”

As she spoke, I saw a parallel. The 30-year-old prefers playing to everything else — promotion, talking, having people over to her apartment: Her soulfulness is clean and efficient and cloaked in a modest spirit. Hanging with her produces the wandery mood typically generated by someone who has no idea what she’s up to, the last person you’d expect to have a hip PR team behind her — a cello in viola’s clothing. These days she bums around on friends’ couches, having dropped $10,000 into the production of her debut album, Good News, the first release on a new label started by the guitar phenom Kaki King. For years, Lam — who was raised on Long Island — lived in Bushwick, both typical and not, in that she predated the groundswell, avoided the crowds, moved in before the butcher shops and vintage stores; her childhood friend Stephanie Fung nearly got stabbed on a Sunday morning visit, around the hour people go to church.

King is herself a virtuoso — killer on the drums, the bass, the guitar, voice — who made a name for herself playing shows in early-2000s Manhattan, alongside a group of female-led rock outfits such as Tegan and Sara and Le Tigre. Today King works out of the Greenpoint home that she shares with her wife and two young kids, from a basement studio where she recently composed her first full-length score for a feature film, and where Lam arrived every day to record and mix Good News. When I visited the two of them in the studio last month, I found a row of some two dozen guitars on the wall. King wears her peroxided hair short, in a James Dean cut. Her jaw is sharp and her eyebrows dark; she is small but looks strong. “I always thought I’d have a hot tub and a doorman and a one-bedroom apartment with a line of babes coming in,” King told me, grinning. “But then this redhead walked into my life.”

On a trip to Los Angeles years ago, at the height of her hot tub–dreaming days, some musician dudes she gigged with told King she would be wise to save money and buy property. Years later, she was able to secure a home in Brooklyn, where she lives a simultaneously quiet and loud life, part rock ’n’ roll, part stable wife, mom, and daughter. Growing up in Atlanta, both her parents were lawyers — in the firm King & King. From them, she absorbed a criticality unusual for a so-called creative type. She describes to me fault lines in the #MeToo movement, says she’s not all on board to the degree one might expect of an icon of queer feminist culture, citing the case of Aziz Ansari as representative of the movement’s blurring of lines in terms of what is and isn’t abuse.

If King is the fire in the elemental balance, Lam is the water. Much of the album came out of literal journeys she took to find herself, drives up and down the East Coast some years ago, and finally a trek way out West, to find a vision she’d had in a dream. She’d been working as a maître d’ at a seasonal hotel on Shelter Island. “I had saved a bunch of money, and was just dreaming of this forest for the entire summer.” It was 2012. Lam told everyone she worked with, “When I’m done with this, I’m gonna go see the redwoods.” In her dream, the trees looked “like a family,” she told me, “a community of trees…super tall, like infinite giants. There was no water, it was just the trees.”

Lam is adopted. She met her birth mother recently, on a trip to Taiwan, a reunion that didn’t quite gel, beset by an inability to communicate that mirrored a larger sense of disconnection from this person in whom she had hoped to see herself reflected. When she drove out to Big Sur, she was searching. She didn’t realize she was in the presence of redwoods until she actually touched the bark of one. “I hadn’t slept well that night, and I couldn’t really comprehend where I was. At some point, I just pulled over and I touched this tree, and just started weeping because I realized I was there.” A few days later, farther north, she walked so far from the road that “everywhere I turned, I was surrounded by these trees. That was the point that felt most like the dreams.” She felt then that she had the power to visualize something into being.

When she and King met in 2016, “she was so prolific she was getting in her own way,” King told me. They were introduced by Nelson, the comic who first heard Lam at Mother’s Ruin. Nelson produces shows around the city — concerts and comedy — and she thought her two friends needed to meet. She orchestrated a setup that felt to her as awkward as an actual blind date, at least her part in it. After dancing around the point, Nelson finally blurted a request that the two musicians take the hint and work together. What resulted is Good News, a languid, bluesy album of songs refined out of reams of score Lam wrote while driving up both coasts. The lyrics reference simple, broad themes: nature, love, peace, kindness — belying the emo tilt of Lam’s appearance. She always wears a dramatic hat, and usually feathers somewhere, plus leather and torn jeans; she tells me she covers her short hair to feel less vulnerable.

As a kid, she didn’t think much about clothes except in an antagonistic way. She was adopted by a Chinese immigrant couple in Nassau County, where her dad, a former director of operation for AT&T, still lives today. Her mom died before the album’s creation, and was sick for most of Lam’s memory; an alum of Parsons School of Design, she was proud to have beaten classroom statistics by graduating. “Then she got diagnosed with lupus in her thirties,” Lam told me, “and was only out working for a few years before that kind of took her out of commission.” The Lams were major figures in the local Chinese Baptist church, hosting prayer meetings out of a basement, where they also housed a piano, expressly for the purpose of religious music. Lam was inducted into the piano circuit young, at the age of three, and played at church. That’s where she met Fung, the friend who would later visit her in Bushwick, and recalls how she would “just watch [Lam] from the pews, like, ‘This girl’s awesome. Amazing at a bunch of instruments.’ ”

With a verve that might have gone into a career in fashion, Lam’s mom set about making things for her baby girl, “spent that energy making me these ridiculously frilly baby clothes,” Lam remembered, wincing. “I looked like a child in a doily. Or we would have, like, matching Laura Ashley dresses.” Lam’s mom was feminine, while Lam never felt she herself was, didn’t yet know the term gender fluid, which she uses to describe herself today but back then might have appreciated for its usefulness — she wore “mostly gym clothes,” and crushed less on her peers than on elders, teachers mainly, never quite doing what she was supposed to. Ergo her love of the viola, the guitar — anything but the violin and piano, twin obsessions of the Asian American competitive musical circuit.

“She kind of had an intense relationship, with her mother being an Asian American parent,” Fung says, and therefore “strict with her about playing music.” Fung recalls “a rebellious phase,” an “I don’t want to practice or play the piano” phase. “The guitar was a little more rebellious.” The viola, as the “middle child,” to cop Lam’s phrase for it, also kept her out of the competitive glare, free to geek out over music without external stakes, so much so that she was accidentally rewarded come college application season. The viola was in high demand at schools, there being few players to choose from, and Lam was “able to get some really good scholarships,” finally taking one from a private school in Florida.

The neatness of the trajectory appealed to me, Lam consistently being rewarded for choosing her own path, for doing what she’s not supposed to, avoiding the easy glory not out of feigned martyrdom but because she’s uncomfortable with pressure, does best when free. Outside the Hungry Ghost coffee shop in Fort Greene, I talked to her about my own choice of instrument — the cello — which in the light of Lam’s path I saw anew. I had been less concerned, I realized, with the practicality of playing than with the sound of telling people what I played, and of pleasing those who would guide me. At the music store, the clerks noticed my long fingers and insisted I was a born cellist, and so I opted for the instrument I knew by reputation to be special; only my small torso meant I was relegated to a three-quarter-size model for all the years I played. I told Lam how I resented this, being handicapped from the start, never able to pull out the sound accessible in a full-size cello, never first chair, only once second, and even then aware that I’d been given a chance despite my inferior sound. Where Lam opted out of expectations, I fumed in silence at bowing to mine, blamed my circumstances for limiting my performance, a handing-off of responsibility for my choices that — my therapists might agree — forms the shape of my particular brand of baggage.

If there is an order shaped from birth, a path set in motion that we can reorient with the perspective that comes with age, into a shape we choose, Lam’s challenge is to reshape her rebellious streak into a marketable energy. King describes Lam’s album as consciously “uncool,” extremely “not 2018,” a throwback to a different era, the slow, moving songs of Carole King and Carly Simon. Lam sits uneasily in the present moment. She views Instagram with trepidation, posting because she knows she has to, and unsure what she should be doing. She namechecks the British singer Laura Mvula as inspiration, a big band–evoking performer who happens to be of color but operates in either a pre– or post–identity politics framework, depending on your view of where we’re headed. She’s listening to the new Janelle Monáe album “nonstop,” but states this in the stilted way of a foreigner explaining methods for fitting in: accent tapes, guidebooks, album of the year. In the car leaving King’s together (it was raining and she had her guitar), I suggest she look into Mitski Miyawaki, the Japanese American singer-songwriter whose track “Your Best American Girl” and corresponding video capture the angst of the in-between person in America today; cast against a blonde girl in Urban Outfitters–style Native American gear, Mitski loses out on a hot white guy both women admire.

Later, over our coffee, I ask Lam if she got around to watching the video. She did, she tells me, and read an interview with Mitski, who goes only by her first name. Lam sounds less enthusiastic than I expected — I watched the video on repeat for days after friends introduced me to it, seeing in its beats the alienation and humiliation and hopelessness I felt as a young brown girl in Texas, aware that I’d never be taken home by the white boy — the desirable ones and the rest — and feeling this loss not only hormonally but in my mind, where I registered what options were available to me, what level of success.

A white boy represented a means to power and authority in this country; being denied him was to be denied full belonging, a symbolic nod to the current political question of who is in and who is out — one I thought Lam might relate to despite the video’s heteronormativity. Lam explained slowly what she saw: “a sense of longing that felt familiar. A wanting to belong or wanting to be loved feeling. Maybe I was focusing on this a little bit too much,” she then said, “or maybe it was the point, but I read an interview that they did with [Mitski], and she talks about how she’s half-American.” This bothered Lam, she explained, the implication that the blonde girl was “full American” (“she [Mitski] seemed to consider her that as well,” she pointed out) and Mitski half. “How can anyone be half-American?” she asked. “Isn’t that the whole purpose of this country? Like if you are here, we’re all American? Even if you were born somewhere else?” (Mitski grew up bouncing between various countries).

I confessed that I often felt “half-American,” in a poetic sense, denied of full personhood or power or authority, the girl who can try but will never get the full prize (which so often in America, for a straight woman, is the white man, but let’s call him a stand-in — for the promotion, the respect, the opportunities, the room to fail and support to succeed). As I said this I saw the shape revealed by my cello choice, the off-loading of responsibility for my sense of self onto others, a demand they accept me so I may accept myself. The freshness of Lam’s rebellion from this line of thought appealed to me — she’s maybe the first person of color my age I’ve talked to who spoke earnestly about loving America despite feeling rejected by the country. Her hopefulness, she says, is new, a departure, at an admittedly “weird time to be talking about hope in this country, but, even despite everything that’s happening…” She trails off. “Growing up I never felt that this was my country,” she tells me. Then she read the book Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins, a man disenchanted with the country and the state of it to the point that he gave up his regular paces and decided to walk from Connecticut to New Orleans. “It has the stories of his travels, his solitude, and meeting communities,” says Lam. Reading that book alongside works by James Baldwin as she drove in search of her dream of a family of trees changed her mind about the country. The texts strung together “like a love letter, and it totally worked, because I fell in love afterward.”

Lam grew up getting yelled at by the pastor’s wife for running around, making too much noise. At a young age, she saw her grandmother’s best friend die, a woman so close to the family she lived with Lam’s grandma, as if they were lovers (they were platonic roommates, to Lam’s knowledge, both at one point moving into her own family’s home.) An early memory is of lying in her bedroom after the death, before puberty, and full of confusion. As a teen, she worked as soon as she could, got a special permit at the age of fifteen so she could enter that refuge of the artist looking for a buck, the restaurant industry, a sort of mirror world to the stage in that every night of service demands each player nail her role. Independence was a seduction, but also a birthright — being adopted, she belongs in a sense to no one. The family of trees, I asked, did they and the album arise as a sort of solution to the problem? A way to create a family? Lam thought the search was connected, for herself, to the search for a past and future, to the severing from roots that comes from dislocation. (King, to this, remarked that she forgot Lam was Asian until just then; she thinks of her music as a-gender, a-race, not tied to ethnicity but to human experience. Lam too told me of a series of love songs written with a careful excision of all pronouns, of how it pleases her when listeners describe their surprise at hearing a coffeehouse voice spill out of someone who looks like her).

At a concert at Joe’s Pub a few weeks later, where she played the entirety of her album, I found myself seated next to old friends of the Lams, an elderly Chinese couple who told me Treya’s dad couldn’t be prouder; who talked openly about the adoption and how much love flowed between these people unconnected by blood; how instrumental the Lams were in the church, and how devastating the death of Treya’s mom in 2016 had been for her and her dad, how proud her mom would have been. They pointed Papa Lam out to me; he sat behind me, a smiling man with a large camera, who shook my hand and asked what I thought of the music, in a tone that suggested he didn’t expect anything less than a glowing review.

Lam describes a complex interaction between intimacy and disconnect. Her mom drove her musicality, insisting on lessons and practice, and fretted over Lam’s actual compositions, wondering why the messages couldn’t be kinder — Lam cites one lyric as example, a questioning of a lover for inspiring pain, which rubbed her mom the wrong way. A typical maternal response to sadness in Lam’s life was the suggestion she pray the pain away. Frilly dresses symbolized their difference. At the same time, biking to meet King their first day of recording in 2017, Lam found herself stopping to cry, wishing her mom could hear what came out.

Lam’s marketing team is Girlie Action, the PR firm selected by King because, she told me, “they’re the best at what they do.” In our Uber Lam told me of a moment when, looking around a table at the people handling her shit, she realized no one was of color. I ask if there’s a relief in being seen outside the bounds of race, or any defining quality, referencing how King seemed to realize Lam’s race only in the context of my presence prompting discussion of it. I cite an anecdote from a friend in an MFA program, about a guy with cancer who can’t shake from agents the pitch to market himself as “the cancer guy,” ask if she’s happy to be spared such treatment. (She punted, giving me a smile and a shrug and a variation of “it’s complicated.”)

Lam’s own musical coming of age tied to white-women rockerdom — barred from radio hits out of religious strictures imposed in her house, she heard her first tease of popular music in college, via a girlfriend, who took her to a Cat Power concert even as Lam’s sexual awakening was unfolding. “She listened to a lot of Cat Power,” her college friend Lauren Palma, also a musician, told me, remembering how the bluesy college band Lam fronted commanded audiences with every show, converting all that rocker energy from the Cat Power inspo into poetic ballads. On the phone with me, Fung, the friend from church, remembered the first song of Lam’s she heard written exclusively for voice and piano. It brought her to instant tears, the song a meditation on unbelonging made richer by Fung’s knowledge of Lam’s unique shape. “I told her,” Fung said, “she should play only the piano.” Fung had also been at the Joe’s Pub concert, where I met Lam’s dad, and I told her I could relate somehow, to the double hearing that comes from knowing what Lam has been through, the questions on her mind. My brother came with me knowing nothing of Lam’s history — the adoption or loss of mom, the gender fluidity, the search for a family of trees. Afterward, he said he was drawn in by her air of mystery, buoyed by the dramatic outfit and a resistance to explain her songs, both features in which I saw proof of the shyness I felt over our coffee, blockades against the public rather than bait to draw them in.

A  few months after her mother died, Lam suffered another death, of a dear friend, the only musician she considered a natural peer, the California singer Dave Deporis. They met at a house party in Brooklyn at a fecund time for him. All he wanted to do was hole up in his room; Lam, for once the social one, seeing in her new friend a need to which she could relate, brought him out, into the light, for balance. Writing songs some time later in a café in Oakland, California, he was interrupted when someone stole his laptop, containing all his songs, his life’s work to that point. He hitched onto the thief’s car and got dragged to death. “I don’t feel frustrated at [Deporis],” Lam said, to the unstated suggestion of agency in the air, the mourner’s refrain, of why’d he have to do that.“I feel frustrated at the way our society is structured. The way we support developing artists is so poor that he struggled to create some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard, up until his last day. All I felt like he wanted to bring to this place was love and…I don’t know. It’s been less than a year since it happened. I’m still…” I asked if she’d ever work on the music he left behind, and she guessed some day, the time would be right. In the meantime, a song he wrote about a redwood tree remains one of her favorites.

My own favorite track from Lam’s album, “Magic,” reminds me of a drive at the tail end of the Pacific Coast Highway, along which Big Sur and the redwoods run. This particular stretch is called the 17 Mile Drive, from Carmel to Monterey, which I experienced a few Januarys back, in a rented car. My companion and I took the path early enough in the morning that light beamed in from the topmost branches of the trees. At one point I begged him to stop the car, the light was so drawn from a fairy tale, falling through the leaves in golden dashes, as if someone gave party confetti the power of levitation. “Magic” exists in a place that reminds me of that one, the instrumentation light and airy and golden, Lam’s voice beseeching the listener to watch out for magic. It sounds cheesy, but the effect isn’t; as with the best nursery rhymes, there is a haunting, forever quality, as if you were meant to hear the tune since birth (aided by the suggestion of a music box hammer in the song’s rhythm). Lam told me she wrote the song after the gunfire at Sandy Hook Elementary School brought down more than a dozen children. Her heart was with the ones left behind, now inside lives stretching ahead with the task of untangling what they had seen. As she told me this, I thought of her on the bed after her grandmother’s friend’s death. Today, I think of the children at the border of our country, who face a long road to healing.

The album’s title echoes the terminology of the religious, and a few passages from the Bible show up in lyrics. Lam tells me these choices reflect a strategy of sorts, to draw in listeners who might not go for a queer nonwhite songstress. A previous near miss at an album brought Lam close to appealing to an entirely different audience — non-American, on the Asian continent — shepherded by Ysanne Spevack, a musician and manager out of L.A. who heard of Lam through a mutual friend. A multi-instrumentalist and string arranger who’d gigged with the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as Asian Dub Foundation out of her home in the U.K., Spevack linked up with Lam years before King, ahead of the current era of popular culture in which marketing one’s own identity is a prereq for creative success in the way it is today. Spevack encouraged Lam in that direction anyway, thinking she’d simply write deeper the more she knew about herself, and live happier.

One thought was to market Lam in Taiwan; Spevack knew the British government spent money on the global success of its artists, funding grants and training abroad. One night, she discovered the Golden Melody Awards, the Taiwanese analog to the Grammys, only “way bigger than anything we have,” because it’s in Asia, where stadium size is a point of national honor. One slice of the awards was dedicated to indigenous Taiwanese musicians. Intrigued, Spevack read up on the awards organization, only to find with growing anxiety that she was looking at a people who resembled Lam. The revelation felt earth-shattering. “It had implications about her health, her genetics, her adoption,” Spevack says — hypothesizing that an indigenous baby adopted by a mainland Chinese couple might be seen as better off never knowing she wasn’t mainland too.

As Spevack clicked through images, she saw the shape of Lam — her large bones and dark skin, her tendency to wear feathers and go barefoot and sing about nature, all traits shared with some of the artists out of the country’s tribal regions. She compares the distinction to one we make in America with jazz and blues traditions, that a people linked to a story of despair infuse a level of emotion into their art. “Indigenous Taiwanese people from these three tribes have this tendency — if you’re a good singer, there’s a tendency toward this beautiful soulfulness, this ability to move people to tears.” Hearing the story,I thought of Lam’s favorite instrument — the viola, whose larger body emits a different sound from that of the violin, deeper, lower, melancholic, and singular; Lam’s body, I thought, was the viola to her Chinese peers’ violins.

Spevack asked Lam to consider a trip upstate, told her she had important news, but she would need to be ready for it; worried she might hurt the family. Before any revelation could happen, Lam’s dad spilled the news of her origin, in a stroke of aligned timing. Some day, Spevack hopes to visit Lam’s tribe in Taiwan with her. (Lam tells me she’s excited to explore her heritage while being “wary of exploiting this side of me.”) Spevack sees in Good News a step toward a self knowledge that doesn’t jump with both feet into the American marketing game, the promise of a Jack White–style success story in the album’s potential to turn Lam international where the Taiwan push fizzled, to find a place in the U.K., where audiences accept the power of sound, often in lieu of sociopolitical alignment.

This tendency Lam’s crew has, to see a potential superstar behind the resistance to being one, I saw reflected in the spirit of the Joe’s Pub concert. The crowd of well-wishers and strangers produced waves of applause and cheers that felt almost loving, even as Lam begged off long explanations of her songs, saying, at one point, “I’d rather just play.” Fung compares the effect of Lam’s voice to ocean waves. “She draws you in, hypnotizes you, and all at once you’ll get taken up by a huge tide, a swell that takes you over completely.” She tells me she noticed the waitstaff stop at one point in the evening, as Lam sang next to a trio of musicians on string instruments — all of them, by chance, white. “I do remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this Asian female lead singer is onstage, leading a bunch of caucasians on string instruments, doing a fantastic job.’ ” The reversal of expectations pleased Fung, a totally 2018 flip one might expect a PR manipulator to orchestrate. Like everything with Lam, though, the effect was accidental; you could tell she wasn’t trying to be anything.

Treya Lam is performing with Kaki King at the Prospect Park Bandshell on July 28 as part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Festival.